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What Can a Patient Navigator Do for You?

by Brenda Wilcox, RN, BSN, OCN

Knowledge image

A sea of questions without answers. A flood of seemingly endless information. A maze of medical confusion. In an instant, a cancer diagnosis can turn your world upside down. When the crisis is at its worst, it is the gentle, calming reassurance of the patient navigator that comes alongside to offer guidance and support to those in need at a time when fear and confusion can blind the way.

What is a patient navigator?
A patient navigator is typically an oncology nurse or a trained oncology medical professional with a thorough understanding of the oncology healthcare system. The purpose of patient navigation is to optimize and streamline survivor care by coordinating therapies and helping individuals and families understand the information that they are being given, as well as helping them make sense of a complex medical system that often involves multiple disciplines.

Navigators seek to empower people with knowledge and understanding to be better able to cope with a cancer diagnosis. Serving as an advocate, navigators help to ensure that survivors and families have access to any needed resources, such as psychosocial and spiritual counselors, social workers, dietitians, and resources within the community, like wig shops and support groups.

People who have been diagnosed with cancer often experience a virtual deafness coupled with an inability to process too much information at one time. A patient navigator can assist them in regaining and maintaining control in what can feel like an out-of-control situation. Knowing that the navigator is easily accessible and always available to lend a helping hand throughout the cancer journey is a priceless gift.

Navigators seek to empower people with knowledge and understanding to be better able to cope with a cancer diagnosis.

Author of Article photo

Brenda Wilcox

How is the navigator utilized?
The following illustration demonstrates the utilization of a patient navigator:

Mrs. Smith has just received a lung cancer diagnosis. After delivering the news, her doctor explains that within the next 24 hours, she will receive a call from a patient navigator who will assist with her cancer care. The surgeon phones the navigator, who in turn phones Mrs. Smith.

The navigator introduces herself and explains to Mrs. Smith that she will be available to Mrs. Smith throughout her cancer care to help her understand the information she will be given and to obtain answers to any questions she may have along the way. Mrs. Smith is encouraged to call at any time and is assured that the navigator will be there to meet her at her first oncology appointment.

After Mrs. Smith’s first meeting with her oncologist, the navigator talks with her, encouraging her to call with any questions she may have about her plan of care. Chemotherapy is recommended, and the navigator assists Mrs. Smith in understanding the process, what side effects to expect, and how best to manage them. Mrs. Smith is also given information about local wig shops because hair loss is one of the side effects of the treatment she will receive.

As treatment begins, the navigator meets with Mrs. Smith at appointments, offering emotional support and providing information and resources as needed. Mrs. Smith’s family often calls the navigator, as well, for assistance in better understanding what their loved one is experiencing and how best to offer support.

What are the benefits of a navigator?
Remaining a constant resource and advocate on behalf of those he or she serves, a patient navigator greatly enhances the care of individuals diagnosed with cancer, as well as caregivers and families. As the navigator provides knowledge and understanding, anxiety and fear begin to decrease. And survivors begin to feel more at ease and empowered to focus their energy on getting well and taking back some of the control that has been robbed of them by cancer.

Cancer affects not only the person who has been diagnosed but also loved ones and friends. While the navigator cares for the survivor, he or she also provides support, comfort, and information to assist caregivers and families. The test of time proves the navigator trustworthy in promptly attending to individual needs, initiating and returning phone calls, relaying messages to physicians on the survivor’s behalf, and obtaining answers to ongoing questions.

Patient navigation has become an important component of cancer care. Navigator programs are improving timely access to diagnosis and treatment and assisting individuals and families in managing and coordinating cancer care, thereby helping people achieve a better quality of life. Patient navigators strive to ensure optimal cancer care, leading the way for those they serve.

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Brenda Wilcox is a patient navigator at Duke Raleigh Cancer Center in Raleigh, NC.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2009.